1. Opinion

Editorial: Legislature should not interfere with local referendums

State Sen. Tom Lee has filed a bill that would create more obstacles to local tax measures. The Hillsborough referendums were just fine.
SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
 Florida Senator Tom Lee, R- Brandon, pauses at his desk in the Senate chamber
SCOTT KEELER | Times Florida Senator Tom Lee, R- Brandon, pauses at his desk in the Senate chamber
Published Feb. 27, 2019

State Sen. Tom Lee opposed the referendum in Hillsborough County that voters approved in November and raised the local sales tax to pay for transportation improvements. Now the Thonotosassa Republican has filed a bill for the upcoming legislative session that he says addresses serious problems the vote exposed. In reality, the referendum was a model for how citizens can govern themselves and shape their own communities. The petition process is fine, and it doesn't need any meddling from Tallahassee.

Lee's bill would require county governments, school boards and petition groups to notify the state of their intention to ask voters to raise taxes at least 180 days before an election. The senator says his intent is to provide a more orderly process for these ballot measures to meet a separate requirement under Florida law that calls for a state audit of programs that would receive this new revenue. He says the two tax measures on the Hillsborough ballot in November that were both approved by voters - one for transportation and another for school improvements - unduly burdened the state's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, which is required by state law to complete these audits at least 60 days before an election.

This is a solution in search of a problem that ultimately would create a higher hurdle for citizen initiatives to appear on the ballot. The state policy analysis office doesn't need months to conduct these audits; it farmed out both Hillsborough audits to private-sector accountants, who completed their field work in August in less than two weeks. While the schools referendum edged close to the deadline, officials worked overtime to complete the audit within the time required. The county's experience last year provides no basis that an earlier deadline is justified or even needed.

Under Lee's legislation, SB 1040, groups seeking to put a referendum on the ballot also would have to file the required number of signatures with the local elections supervisor at least six months before the election. That reduces the amount of time groups have to gather petitions. Hillsborough's elections office certified in August that the group behind the transportation referendum, All for Transportation, had submitted the required number of signatures to make the November ballot. Under Lee's bill, that deadline would have been May. Lee's bill also requires petition groups to obtain an independent written legal opinion from an attorney "verifying that the proposed referendum complies with state law." A nonbinding opinion from one attorney is meaningless. It's another hurdle and expense to citizen groups that does nothing to prevent court challenges down the road.

Contrary to being broken, Hillsborough's experience shows the system works. Voters followed an established routine for deciding for themselves whether to make key investments in their community. This is another assault on home rule, and the Legislature should be wary of further restricting local control or putting new barriers to the petition process.